Central Michigan coach Keno Davis and his assistant, Jeff Smith, had just returned to their hotel in Dallas after a long day of watching a half-dozen AAU games in a nearby gym. They checked their cell phones to get caught up on the day’s news and saw Marcus Keene was transferring out of Youngstown State.
Davis remembered Keene vividly from when the undersized 2-guard went for 24 points and torched his Chippewas for a handful of 3-pointers earlier that season.
“Would you want him?” Smith asked.
“Yep,” Davis answered emphatically.
But Davis had no idea, after luring Keene to Mt. Pleasant, that he’d wind up with the nation’s leading scorer.
Neither did Keene.
“No way,” Keene said.
The diminutive Keene hasn’t exactly been a household name within basketball circles. The son of military parents, he spent his freshman season of high school at Honolulu’s Moanalua High, then begged his mother to return to San Antonio in hopes he could receive the exposure necessary to be better equipped to land a Division I scholarship.
He helped carry his high school team, Warren High, to the state tournament -- even knocking down a couple of game-winners while playing alongside current NBA forward Taurean Prince. Keene spent the summers with a small outfit called the San Antonio Legends, and his size was a factor as he was bypassed by all the high-major schools and many of the mid-major ones as well.
So he took his talents to Youngstown State, where he had a nice, solid, fairly obscure two-year run. He averaged 6.5 points per game as a freshman and 15.6 points as a sophomore.
“I wanted to be a point guard,” Keene said. “It just wasn’t the right fit.”
Keene was a 5-foot-8 (he was listed at 5-11 at Youngstown) 2-guard who wound up being more of a spot-up 3-point shooter. In fact, nearly 60 percent of his attempts were from beyond the arc.
“I knew I couldn’t play after college as a 5-foot-8 2-guard,” he acknowledged.
So he left.
Sure, there were immaturity issues -- off-court problems and times he clashed with the coaching staff. There was also a physical altercation with a teammate in practice when he was a freshman. But Keene said he grew from that incident and claims it had nothing to do with his departure.
Davis said it didn’t take long for him to realize that Keene would be his go-to guy -- and a prolific scorer. In an intrasquad scrimmage last season, while he was sitting out as a transfer and playing on a team full of walk-ons, Keene was nearly unguardable and led his team to a win over a team expected to win the MAC.
“He had 39 and we doubled him and did whatever we could to get the ball out of his hands,” Davis said.
Keene hit the weight room while sitting out last year, and worked on his ballhandling abilities in order to be able to play point guard this season and next.
“Coach Keno saw what I was able to do last year when I was on the scout team,” Keene said. “He’s given me the green light to call whatever play I want and to shoot whenever I want.”
Now Keene sits atop the list of the nation’s leading scorers. Eleven games into the season, he’s averaging 30.8 points per game, more than 5 points more than the second-place scorer, Grand Canyon’s Dwayne Russell.
Keene is trying to do something Kevin Durant didn’t do at Texas, Jimmer Fredette didn’t do at BYU and Adam Morrison didn’t do while at Gonzaga.
Average 30 per game.
The last time anyone averaged 30 points for an entire season was 20 years ago, when Long Island’s Charles Jones put up 30.1 per contest.
“Like a lot of people, it doesn’t seem sustainable to do that for the year,” Davis said. “The key for him will be how he responds to having an off night.”
Keene had one this past weekend in 92-73 loss to Illinois, when he was just 9-of-23 from the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. He finished with 25 points, but it wasn’t exactly efficient.
“As long as I stay healthy,” Keene said, “I feel like I can keep this up.”
“Honestly, if anyone can do it, it’s Marcus,” Prince said. “He has so much confidence and honestly believes he can do it.”